I left Santa Monica on Wednesday and hauled my giant backpack and assorted camping gear onto busses and trains to get to Ojai Valley, just north-east of the greater LA metropolitan area. But what a different world it is! Ojai itself is a beautiful, neat little town at the bottom of its namesake valley (which incidentally is one of the rare valleys that run East to West). It attracted the likes of Aldous Huxley and The Beatles in the 70s and is still full of holistic healing and organic produce offerings.
The Ojai Foundation (TOF) itself, where I’ll be a ‘work exchanger’ for the next three weeks sits on a hill above the town. Close enough to see and easily reach the world down there but truly a refuge from urban life. TOF sits on 40 acres of land. It is a collection of communal spaces, gardens, domes and yurts for workshop guests and camp spots for us work exchangers that spill down one side of the hill and run up to the top of it. So it’s a lot of missioning up down hills and through different gardens and spaces to get to the different areas. I constantly keep discovering new pathways and hidden niches with wooden benches, hammocks, shrines to Buddhist, Native American and Christian deities and little offerings of beauty. TOF follows the Navajo “beauty way” tradition which essentially means to leave every space more beautiful than you found it. Hence the land and the living areas are strewn with flowers, painted rocks and even pieces of jewelry that guests and staff have left to beautify this place.
Since the volunteer coordinator is on holiday I am met by Cali (from California!) who has been volunteering here for three weeks. Then there is Travis (a Californian cum Oregonian) who just arrived a few days before me and Jebrahn from Oregon who has been here as an intern for a couple of months already – she sleeps out under the stars with no tent despite the freezing night-time temperatures! Cali shows me my lovely secluded campsite which is named MoonCrow and was apparently identified by a geomancer as a particular energy spot on the land. I set up my brand new one-woman tent which turns out to be tiny but actually quite cosy. Then I’m shown the solar-heated bathroom and communal kitchen where we each store and cook our own food.
Until tomorrow, a Buddhist meditation group is staying on the land who pretty much take care of their own needs, so my first days at TOF have started off slowly. Some of the regular tasks will include sweeping and cleaning communal spaces, tending the compost, cleaning and filling the numerous water bowls that are distributed around the grounds to deter wild animals from chewing through hoses to get to our water supply. Then there are specific gardening and land management projects going on that I am keen to join to learn some theory and skills of permaculture. Yesterday was a good start:
I woke at 6am to the sound of drumming coming from the sacred area around the sweat lodge. I think the Buddhists have been using it. Despite the cold I decided to do some yoga outside on the hilltop, seeing the sun rise over the mountains and spill into the valley as I was doing my sun salutations! At 7.30 there was a shared meditation for staff led by Leif, the land manager who lives in an amazing naturally built house on the site together with is wife, their two young children and his mother. Leif then offered to give us a crash course in natural designs – the universal patterns that occur in nature and that are observed and made use of by permaculture designers in order to make their groundworks and agricultural activities sync with the local natural system, thereby making them as efficient and productive as possible. Some of the basic designs include the vortex, circle, spiral, meander, swales and hexagon. Many of these can be found repeated at the scale of the cosmos, the ecosphere, individual organisms and even the cells we are made up of. Learning to see these patterns all around us is the first step to “ecological literacy”. And this ability also allowed Leif to develop artistic skills for the first time in his life, he says. Now that he sees and understands the patterns that all life forms are made up of he is suddenly able to draw realistic semblances of them without having ever taken an art class!
At breakfast, I meet CJ. He and his girlfriend Jen, also an Oregonian, are hired staff and live in a rustic cob cottage on the land. Approximately my age, I am amazed to find out that Jen not only has a degree but spent several years working for the peace corps in Senegal and trained in sustainable agriculture in New Zealand and Canada before coming here. She has also learned to make tinctures from medicinal plants and is developing various other homesteading skills, such as fermenting and pickling and natural building. Jen points out all of the edible plants to me that are already growing at the Foundation: pomegranates, grapefruit, dates, pink pepper, sage, rosemary, to name only some. She lets me help her plant some vegetables and flowers (thus far, no food is intentionally grown on the land but CJ and Jen want to start experimenting with this) and then takes me down to the “Wolf Den” where Leif and his family live and where Cali, Travis and I help him plant two trees in around the chicken coup. I am happy to start learning these practical skills but it also makes me aware of just how MUCH there is to know about all of the different needs and behaviours of the dozens, if not hundreds of plants (and animals) you would want to nurture and interact with when leaving off the land. But there is one principle of permaculture that I can easily start putting into practice: No matter what you do to modify the land and the ecosystem, it should not only be useful but also look beautiful in the end! And CJ also encourages. When I tell him what a “city dummy” I feel like for not having any of the basic skills to sustain myself he says: “You do have them, they only need to be activated”.